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Turning Michigan into Colombia: The Global Assault on Workers and the Prospects for Solidarity


December 11 marked a major defeat for working people in the United States, as a lame-duck legislature made Michigan the twenty-fourth state to pass so-called “right-to-work” legislation. The Orwellian term “right to work” was popularized by employers starting in the 1940s as they sought to roll back the historic gains of labor during the prior decade. Right-to-work (RTW) laws prohibit contracts that require all workers to contribute to the costs of union representation, encouraging “free-riding” and making it much more difficult for unions to survive (unions remain legally bound to represent all workers within a bargaining unit, whether or not they pay their fair share of dues). Michigan’s RTW legislation sends an ominous signal for workers everywhere given the state’s historic reputation as a union stronghold and the fact that a mass protest of at least 10,000 workers at the state capitol in Lansing on December 11 did not succeed in preventing passage. 

 

 

 

Starving for Justice: The Colombian GM Workers 

 

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 Above: Hunger striker Jorge Parra with his lips sewn shut, November 20. Photo from  

 

 

      

The workers’ families have suffered even more than the workers themselves. Some have already been evicted from their homes, by some of the same banks and mortgage companies throwing U.S. families out on the street. Many of the workers have small children. Earlier this month five of the workers’ wives wrote personal letters to GM Vice President of Labor Relations Catherine Clegg, which supporters hand-delivered to Clegg’s mansion in the Detroit suburbs on December 6. The wife of one injured worker told of how her 8-year-old daughter constantly asks why her father “is not happy like he was before, why he has his mouth sewn shut, why she has seen him so sick, and other questions that I do not know how to respond to.” The couple’s other child is a 12-year-old boy named Angel, who has cerebral palsy and is about 98-percent incapacitated. Since his father’s firing Angel no longer receives the medicine and therapy he needs. Such scenes are repeated for many of the workers’ families, who live in a world that GM executives will never see or experience. In 2011 GM recorded a record profit of $7.6 billion, thanks in part to its subsidy from taxpayers. 

killed and hundreds receiving death threats in 2011. Peasants, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people are routinely murdered and displaced by business elites who covet their land and resources. Sexual violence is frequently used as part of this effort. Dozens of priests and human rights defenders are killed each year. And underlying these acts of overt criminality is the structural violence of daily life for the country’s majority: 1.15 percent of landowners control 52 percent of the land, three-quarters of rural residents live in poverty, and about 121,000 Colombians die each year from undernourishment. 

applauded Colombia’s strides toward maintaining a “business friendly environment.” The report ranked Colombia third in Latin America with regard to the “ease of doing business.” Not coincidentally, Colombia has been the United States’ most reliable ally in South America over the past two decades, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in annual military aid that is used in large part to kill and control Colombia’s hungry majority. 

United States and the European Union are additional steps in this direction, designed to further liberate big business at the expense of ordinary people in all countries involved. Despite promises to respect workers’ rights—embodied in the “Labor Action Plan” that accompanied the 2011 U.S.-Colombia agreement—the idea of protecting working people runs directly counter to the logic of such trade deals. 

notes that prior to 1990, “Colombian workers were among the most organized in Latin America.” But since the government passed anti-union legislation similar to RTW in 1990, “Anti-union discrimination by employers” has increased and “employer practices such as the dismissal and blacklisting of union leaders are widespread.” In 2005 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions gave an overview of labor conditions in Colombia:

The state ministries and bodies responsible for social policy have been weakened, reformed or dismantled…Workers have been sacked or given less secure terms of employment in both the private and public sectors. Both sectors are being restructured using laws that promote labour flexibility and enable employers to evade clear obligations…It is a complex and sometimes impossible task to form trade unions, sign collective agreements or organise strikes…People wanting to set up a union are dismissed, harassed or even threatened with death…Impunity is the norm for those who violate labour rights (including murdering of unions leaders and members), whilst the full force of the law is brought to bear on workers, even where they are acting in full compliance with it.

The report noted that as a result, just five percent of the economically active population belonged to trade unions, and only one percent of Colombian workers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement—even worse than in the United States. But not much worse. 

 

millions of dollars into the state to promote RTW. These forces viewed Michigan as a litmus test for their effort to smash unions, wages, and corporate taxes in other northern states. Their dream is quite clear: an economy and society resembling Colombia’s, where atomized workers are paid starvation wages and work in dangerous conditions while the chosen few gorge themselves on the profits. 

reducing consumer demand. Many workers simply enter the ranks of the permanently-unemployed and expendable population, while whatever jobs are created are typically of the low-wage, highly-precarious sort. 

“emergency manager” law that allows the governor to hand over cities and school districts to unelected dictators, who are empowered to dissolve union contracts, lay off workers en masse, and privatize public land and services. After Michigan voters rejected the law in a November referendum, the lame-duck legislature passed a slightly-modified version of the law around the same time it was pushing through RTW. In recent months Michigan’s politicians have also prohibited dues check-off for teachers, eliminated benefits for the domestic partners of state employees, and decreed that research assistants at universities are not workers and therefore cannot unionize. Governor Rick Snyder and his fellow Republicans have led the onslaught, though sometimes with the cooperation or only tepid opposition of state Democrats.

In Detroit Jorge Parra views these developments with a sad but knowing expression on his face. “The same story is being repeated here,” he says with regard to RTW. “They put this same law into effect in the early 1990s in Colombia, and now it’s practically a death sentence to be a unionist.” Michigan workers do not face the same level of violence and hardship that Colombian workers face, but RTW and other attacks have inched Michigan ever closer to that reality. 

 

do not rise toward the best of U.S. union conditions via international solidarity, U.S. pay and conditions will continue  

 

 

Above: GM hunger striker Jorge Parra (center), with fellow hunger striker Melvin Thompson of Detroit (right) and actor Danny Glover, earlier this month. (Photo by author)

 

 

 

stock ownership and profit-sharing arrangements give workers a concrete stake in the prosperity of the companies and, at least potentially, a disincentive to support the demands of other workers like ASOTRECOL in Colombia. The UAW leadership has certainly bought into this idea of shared interest between executives and workers. “Management’s not the enemy,” says one union official in Ohio. “The enemy is the competition.” 

right-wing populism in this country). Union leaders even sell out their own constituents by agreeing to “two-tier” wage schemes and other concessions. Their approach tends to rely much more on backroom discussions with bosses and on the concept of “partnership” with employers than on the mobilization of rank-and-file workers to confront the employers. Their political strategy consists of playing lapdogs to the Democrats. 

 

point out that union leaders’ constant concessions and failed political strategy helped pave the way for the recent passage of RTW. Ron Lare remain committed to the same failed strategy. The injured GM workers in Colombia have yet to receive any public support from the leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) despite countless appeals by Jorge Parra and his fellow workers. Michigan unions’ disinterest in the recent campaign to repeal the “emergency manager” law—which would primarily affect black population centers like Detroit—is yet another telling indication of these same sorts of prejudices. Most labor leaders remain wedded to the traditional model: trying to elect Democrats, “talking to the boss” rather than engaging the rank-and-file, and remaining narrowly focused on the concerns of one’s “own” workers. 

strong support of Chicagoans—thanks in part to union outreach to city residents and a “social unionist” perspective emphasizing the need to fight not just for dues-paying members but also for students and the community at large (for instance, by opposing school closures and demanding smaller classes). Soon after, non-unionized manual laborers in Wal-Mart’s supply chain went on strike in Illinois and California and successfully won back pay and improvements in working conditions. 

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font-family: ‘Verdana’,'sans-serif’;”>: 150%; font-family: ‘Verdana’,'sans-serif’;”> by writing a check to Wellspring UCC with “Colombia relief” on memo line, and send to Wellspring UCC, Box 508, Centreville, VA 20122. Or donate at www.wellspringucc.org and write “Colombia relief” on the message subject line. 

  • US Embassy in Colombia: [email protected] (Andrea Aquilla, Labor Officer)
  • Colombian Embassy in DC: [email protected] (Veronica Turk, assistant to the Ambassador)
  • US Bureau of Int’l Labor Affairs (Jason Kuruvilla): [email protected]  line-height: 150%; font-family: ‘Verdana’,'sans-serif’;”>POST ON TWITTER:   @GM   @USEmbassyBogota  @BarackObama @JuanManSantos line-height: 150%; font-family: ‘Verdana’,'sans-serif’;”>POST ON FACEBOOK:  GM: www.facebook.com/generalmotors

    www.facebook.com/usdos.colombia   

    www.ASOTRECOL.com and the solidarity campaign’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/SolidarityWithGMHungerStrikers 

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